A Tournament of Murders by Paul Doherty

The pilgrims continue on their journey to Canterbury. While sheltering in a monastery for the night, the Franklin proceeds to tell his tale of murder and terror, inspired in part by the outlaws haunting the forest around them. He tells a tale that stretches from the fields of Poitiers to a broken-down estate on an island in Kent. A tale of knights and treachery. A tale of honour and betrayal. And a tale of a few good men, trapped on an island with an army of outlaws. And a mysterious black knight…

This is the third in the Canterbury Tales series by Paul Doherty, following An Ancient Evil and A Tapestry of Murders. It’s an odd little series, as it tells tales that may or may not be fictional relative to the storyteller (although so far they are always true) and seem to involve a number of the pilgrims in some way. I’m concentrating my Doherty obsession on these stories at the moment for two reasons. One, the next new book by Paul Doherty is in this series – The Midnight Man and two, to be honest, I’m still not completely convinced by the format. So it’s sort of a way of getting them out of the way so I can concentrate on the Hugh Corbett or Brother Athelstan books that I’ve yet to read.

So, how does this one stack up with the first two of the series?

The good thing about these tales is that basically, all bets are off when it comes to supernatural stuff. The first book was about vampires – real ones (and that’s not a spoiler). The second didn’t even have a sniff of any otherworldly elements. The final book (I read that one first and it’s definitely my favourite so far) has a ghost as a main character. So when the ghostly black knight turns up, it’s not at all certain whether this is a ghost story or an episode of Scooby Doo, medieval style.

To detail the story a little, Richard Greenele, squire to Sir Gilbert Savage, is sent by his master, dying on the field of Poitiers, to see a lawyer in Essex to find the truth of his origins. He finds the lawyer’s daughter instead (the rather wonderful Emmeline, who is a great character) and, picking up a retinue of outcasts along the way, journeys to his father’s old island estate. His father was accused of murdering the local lord and lady, but escaped only to be killed by outlaws. Now the five knights who attended the estate at the time of the crime, one of whom is presumably guilty, are in attendance to find the truth. But when the outlaws who are following them surround the estate, and the only bridge to the island has been burned, it seems that death may be the only escape for anyone…

This is a rather nice little tale, that does a pretty good job of playing with your expectations. The detective duties in the book are shared between Richard and Emmeline, and there’s a nice line in not knowing where the story is going – whether it’s a tale of triumph or tragedy. This is helped by the fact that for the first time it is not obvious who the narrator, the Franklin (medieval landowner, apparently) is in the story. I thought it was a bit of a missed opportunity in the other three books to make it clear early on who the storyteller was, but this leaves until the epilogue to tell us who the various characters are.

At the end of the day, though, it does also feature one of Doherty’s weaknesses – namely providing distinctive characters for similar figures. Here I found the five knights to be pretty interchangeable and given the main clue was a dying message concerning the name of the killer – which I would expect would have been spotted at the time of delivery given the prevalent nature of something at that time – it didn’t really seem to matter who was who.

Oh, it’s got a locked room murder in it as well. A fairly easily resolved one, but I thought I’d mention it.

So, the identity of the murderer was a bit of a mishit, but the grander game being played, both in the story and in the framing sequence more than made up for it. I’ll say no more, otherwise I am going to spoil the plot too much. For me, one of the better entries to this series, along with A Haunt of Murder.

This counts as my eighth book in the Historical Fiction Challenge.

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